Confederate Chaplain John J. Girardeau
Before the War
Mark W. Evans, Chaplain
[This article is the first of a series of biographical sketches of Girardeau, chaplain of the Twenty-third Regiment of the South Carolina Volunteers.]
John Lafayette Girardeau was born on James Island, South Carolina, November 14, 1825. The Bible teaches, “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth” (Lam. 3:27). If bearing the yoke includes adversity, this descendant of the Huguenots succeeded. As a boy, two times he came face to face with death by goring. Twice he was almost drowned. Several times he sustained serious falls from a horse. At the age of seven, he lost his Christian mother. When ten years old, he was sent to the school of the German Friendly Society in Charleston. He endured a debilitating method of education that he despised for the rest of his life. His future students reaped the benefits. They would learn through positive incentives, not through physical cruelty.
After graduation, he continued his education at Charleston College. There, the Lord brought him to know the joys of salvation. His biographer, George A. Blackburn, said:
One beautiful morning while on his knees begging for mercy, it occurred to him that he had already done everything that it was possible for him to do, and that all of these things had availed him nothing. He would, therefore, just surrender himself to Jesus and leave the case in His hands. This was faith. Instantly the Holy Spirit assured him that he was accepted in Christ, that his sins were forgiven, and that God loved him with an everlasting love. He sprang to his feet, clapped his hands and poured out the overflowing joy of his soul in praise [p. 23].
Thus, God did an eternal work in the heart of a Southern patriot who devoted his life to Christ.
Girardeau received his ministerial training at Columbia Theological Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina, and was ordained as a minister of the Presbyterian Church. In 1853, he accepted a call to the slave mission work in Charleston. He desired to organize a black church separate from the white churches. The Lord granted his prayer. To his immense joy, his slave congregation experienced revival. With the aid of generous believers, a new edifice was erected on Calhoun Street, called the Zion Church of Charleston.
Girardeau’s friend, Joseph B. Mack, gave the following description of his preaching:
Once in Zion Church in Charleston he was preaching to a large congregation of Negroes. As in plaintive tones he pictured Jesus Christ going forth to death and bending beneath the burden of the cross, every eye was opened wide and riveted upon the speaker, while each breast seemed to rise and fall, and step after step was taken up the rugged steep of Calvary. When the place of execution was reached everybody fell back and many hands were raised in horror. When the nails were driven, a deep sigh swept through the house like the sad moan of the sea as it rolls in upon the shore, and when the Savior’s head was drooped in death, a deep shudder convulsed the weeping throng as hundreds piteously cried. ‘O, my God! O, my God!’ [pp. 52, 53].
Col. Alfred Robb, of the Forty-sixth Tennessee Regiment, C.S.A., told Rev. J. H. McNeilly, about an incident involving Gen. Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts. Robb and Butler attended the National Democratic Convention, meeting in Charleston in 1860. On Sunday, Butler inquired of Robb about his plans for the day. When Robb explained that he was going to hear a white preacher who was dedicated to bringing salvation to black slaves, Butler said he must hear such a preacher. When they arrived at the church, the slaves filled the main floor, while the whites sat in the balcony. Robb said:
The prayer of the preacher was earnest, simple and humble as of a man pleading with God. The singing was general, heartfelt and grand. The sermon was tender and spiritual, and though profound, was plain, delivered with fire and unction. After the preacher took his seat, deeply impressed, I was with closed eyes meditating on the wonderful sermon, when I heard some one sobbing. Looking around, I saw Gen. Butler’s face bathed in tears. Just then the church officers came for the usual collection and at once Gen. Butler drew from his pockets both hands full of silver coin (put there to tip the waiters), and cast it into the basket, with the audible remark, ‘Well, I have never heard such a man and have never heard such a sermon.’
The writer of this account, Joseph B. Mack, said:
In two years from that day Colonel Robb had died on the field of battle fighting for the South, Dr. Girardeau was a chaplain in the Confederate States Army, and General Butler was hated by the men and women of Dixie [pp. 57, 58].
After hearing Girardeau preach, Rev. J. M. Buckley, of the Northern Methodist Church, said:
I have now to say that, having heard Thomas Guthrie of Edinburgh, James Hamilton of London, and Mr. Spurgeon six or eight times, it has never fallen to my lot to hear a more absorbing, spiritual, eloquent and moving sermon on an ordinary occasion. — It made all the preaching I have ever done, and nearly all I have ever heard, seem like mere sermonizing. Looking around to catch the eye of my friend, I saw that two-thirds of all the men in the audience were in tears. It was no rant or artificial excitement or mere pathos, but thought burning and glowing [p. 57].
Girardeau received calls from prominent city churches across the nation, including New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wilmington, St. Louis, Nashville, Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans. He refused them all. God had called him to minister to the Gullah slaves of the low country of South Carolina.
John Lafayette Girardeau, renowned preacher, distinguished theologian, and pastor of slaves, watched with burning heart the invasion of his homeland by Northern aggressors. A new mission field opened before him. Through hunger, thirst, weariness, forced marches, scarce supplies, fierce weather, and fiercer battles, the valiant Girardeau followed the Captain of his salvation. Leaving wife, children, and his beloved slave ministry, he became chaplain of the 23rd Regiment of the South Carolina Volunteers, organized April, 1861. This Regiment served at Secessionville, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Maryland, Sharpsburg, Mississippi, and Petersburg. For the most part, Girardeau was the Twenty-third Regiment’s spiritual leader throughout the struggle for Southern Independence.
In an early conflict, the new chaplain showed his Christianity in a remarkable way. Dixie’s defenders had forced Union soldiers to withdraw from Secessionville, leaving behind injured and dying soldiers. Cpl. D. W. McLaurin, one of the color-bearers of the Twenty-third Regiment, said:
Dr. John Girardeau, though one of the most ardent of Southerners, one, in fact who was never reconstructed, went down on his knees by these dying Union soldiers and offered up fervent prayers to his God for their salvation [p. 108].
Concerning Second Manassas, a battle in which many of the 23rd Regiment were killed or wounded, McLaurin said of Girardeau:
Many are the recorded acts of heroic conduct on this bloody field, but, like the man in the ranks, without whom there could be no army nor ever a battle won, but whose name is never mentioned in song or story, so was our beloved chaplain as he moved among us, constantly exposed to the deadly fire of the enemy, trying to alleviate the suffering of the wounded, and assist them in making peace with their God before being ushered into His presence [p. 113].
The conclusion of the war brought the 23rd Regiment, along with their intrepid chaplain, to Petersburg. General Grant’s siege of that city had no power to quench Girardeau’s zeal. McLaurin said:
In the trenches for days, weeks, and months, Dr. Girardeau was always with the soldiers, bearing their privations and undergoing the same hardships with them, always lending cheer to all with whom he came in contact. He held regular prayer meetings even under these trying conditions, and many times he came into the trenches and, gathering a little crowd around him, expounded the Scripture and prayed with them. On these occasions, so close were the lines together, that our singing would attract the attention of the Union gunners and cause them to open fire on us [p. 118].
From June 18 to July 29, 1864, the Twenty-third Regiment was positioned on the ground under which the Union army, by means of a secret tunnel, plotted to detonate an enormous amount of explosives. On July 29th, the Twenty-third was ordered to move to their right for about a hundred yards. The Twenty-second Regiment took the Twenty-third’s place in the doomed area. McLaurin said:
About 4:30 on the morning of the 30th of July the whole earth seemed to tremble, and to our left there shot far into the heavens a solid mass of fire, smoke, cannon, timbers and human beings, as if a volcano had been born in a minute .
The explosion formed a crater into which the Federal forces rushed to destroy the stunned Confederates. The Twenty-third Regiment answered with blistering fire, eventually stopping the Northern advance. When it was over, the Regiment had suffered its greatest losses.
This Union defeat was temporary and had no permanent affect upon the siege. Southern warriors suffered through a long, miserable winter. After a failed offense, General Lee led a retreat with hopes that the South could escape defeat, although vastly outnumbered and in desperate need of supplies. Chaplain Girardeau stayed at his post, giving forth the Word of God and leading by courageous example.
When Lee’s army retreated from Richmond, April, 1865, Girardeau delayed after speaking with another chaplain. His delay caused his capture. Contrary to the laws of warfare, he was taken to a Northern prison on Johnson’s Island. The Federal leaders kept him in prison until several months after the war. Yet, by God’s grace, Girardeau found another field of labor. He taught and preached to the eternal blessing of many.
The imprisoned chaplain gathered Southern youth for lessons in theology. The seed took deep root. In 1875, the General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church, unanimously called Girardeau to fill the chair of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina. Thomas H. Law said:
Dr. Girardeau while held a prisoner on Johnson’s Island so long, had taught a class of ministers and theological students with such marked ability and success that the report of this work had gone abroad throughout the Church, and the conviction that he had, in an eminent degree, the qualifications of mind and heart and person and culture to fill this chair and take up the work laid down by the illustrious Dr. Thornwell at his premature decease [p. 158].
The preacher in bonds lifted his voice to declare the Word of Truth. Dr. J. H. McNeilly quoted the testimony of an officer of artillery, who was imprisoned with Girardeau:
He preached very often in the prison. His platform was the center of a great circle from which the streets radiated to the various sections of the barracks. My cousin told me that when Dr. Girardeau preached, not only the circle, but the streets as far as he could be heard, were crowded with eager listeners. Confederates and Federal guards all mingled together, held by a common interest. He said many men dated their conversion from these services [p. 126].
The Bible teaches, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and He delighteth in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the Lord upholdeth him with His hand” (Psalm 37:23, 24). John L. Girardeau persevered, resting in his Redeemer, and learned that the Savior never leaves nor forsakes those who trust in Him.
After the War
Rev. John L. Girardeau served as chaplain to the twenty-third South Carolina Regiment for some three years. He was captured during the retreat from Richmond and sent as a prisoner of war to Johnson’s Island. The Union retained Chaplain Girardeau until the end of June 1865. At last, he was allowed to return to the State of his birth. Having endured hardships of the camp, fatigues of numerous marches, heart-wrenching experiences of warfare, and incarceration in a Yankee prison, the devout Christian and Southern patriot returned to his beloved South Carolina. A personal acquaintance, Joseph B. Mack, detailed his crossing the State line:
Just after the war he was released from a Federal prison and was journeying in a wagon with others to his home. When they had passed the State line some one said, ‘We are now in South Carolina.’ Immediately Dr. Girardeau shouted, ‘Stop,’ and then leaping out of the wagon he kneeled down and laid his head on the ground. With streaming eyes he exclaimed, ‘O South Carolina, my mother, dear, God be thanked that I can lay my head on your bosom once more.’”
Before the War for Southern Independence, Dr. Girardeau labored zealously to see the salvation and spiritual prosperity of Charleston’s slaves. Beginning with a black congregation of forty-eight souls in 1855, by 1860 the membership totaled four hundred sixty. However, this number was small compared to the crowds of 1,500 to 2,000 slaves who regularly attended. In the late 1850’s, the Spirit of God sent a mighty revival in which many blacks and whites entered the joy of salvation. Now Dr. Girardeau returned to his family in a refugee home, near Timmonsville, South Carolina. Almost forty years old, and having the respect of a faithful and eloquent preacher, he was often called to proclaim God’s Word among those grieving over the lost struggle for Southern liberty and independence. His heart was especially burdened for his former black congregation. Fellow-preacher, Dr. Thomas H. Law, said:
His mind naturally turned to his beloved Zion Church in Charleston, and his heart yearned to be with that dear flock again. But it had been scattered to the four winds through the exigencies of the war. Hostilities began in Charleston in 1861; and the city had constantly been threatened with attack ever afterwards and was frequently shelled by the enemy’s batteries on Morris Island. Consequently, the white population, as far as practicable, abandoned the city early in the dread conflict and removed their slaves also to places of greater security. And at this date the white citizens were only beginning to return, and the Negroes, now emancipated, were scattered all over the country.
Around September 1865, the Lord’s servant returned to Charleston at the invitation of the city’s Presbyterian young men. His ministerial duties began in the “the pulpit of the stately and commodious old Second Church building.” Northern Presbyterian Church missionaries occupied his old church, called the Zion Church. The large building was confiscated by the Freedman’s Bureau, which denied access to the rightful owners. Eventually, Dr. Girardeau and his Zion Church white congregation joined with the Glebe Street Church to form a new assembly that retained the name of Zion Church. The veteran Confederate chaplain sought to minister to both blacks and whites, until he was forced to yield to the sad change, produced by the war, that parted blacks from their white pastors. He labored in adverse conditions created by a gloating Northern victor. A fellow minister, Dr. Thomas H. Law, said:
[Charleston] was subject to the galling yoke of military rule, administered by our late adversaries, many of whose unprincipled officers seemed to delight in lording it over a subjugated and helpless people. And this was followed by the horrible and detestable Reconstruction oppression in South Carolina, which dragged its slimy course of corruption and fraud and misrule and degradation of a high-toned people through the whole period of Dr. Girardeau’s pastorate of Zion Church, Glebe Street. And it was under the constant pressure of these abnormal conditions that he pursued his work.
In 1875, the General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church unanimously selected Dr. Girardeau to fill the vacated chair of Didactic and Polemic Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina. After much anguish of heart, the preacher/theologian accepted the call and entered his crowning work. Dr. Girardeau gave himself to a foundational task of rebuilding the South through training Southern young men for the Gospel ministry. The strength of Dixie has always rested upon the eternal verities of God’s Holy Word. Being a Christian of the old school, Dr. Girardeau believed in the inspiration and absolute authority of the Bible. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was his constant study and theme. His biographer, George A. Blackburn, said:
To him, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ was the one thing in this world that was worth knowing. An earnest and diligent student, often turning night into day by his long continued labors, it was the Gospel alone that engaged his energies and absorbed his thoughts. Even when his mind was turned to other fields of thought, it was still this one idea that constantly and consciously controlled him.
His love for Christ, coupled with a keen theological mind, enabled him to prepare the way for a continuing Christian witness that still echoes from pulpits across the Southland. In 1895, at the age of seventy, Dr. Girardeau voluntarily retired, in spite of many protests. In the same year, he suffered from an illness that left him “partially paralyzed on one side.” Dr. Girardeau, along with Dr. Robert L. Dabney, were considered the two leading theologians of the Southern Presbyterian Church. Both men had served in the Confederate struggle. George A. Blackburn wrote of Dr. Dabney, afflicted with blindness, visiting his old friend after hearing of his partial paralysis. During his visit, Dr. Dabney preached in the Arsenal Hill Church on the topic of the power of love. When he expounded on Christ’s love for His aged servants, the congregation wept. Dr. Girardeau was deeply affected. At the close of the service, the two warriors for truth walked arm and arm down the isle. Both were rejoicing in the glorious time of worship. Dr. Girardeau was overheard asking Dr. Dabney, “But what will it be in heaven?” Blackburn said:
And so, blind and lame these princes in Israel walked on, talking of the past and future worship of God. A few months after this meeting they both joined the general assembly and church of the first born in the majestic worship of their God and Savior.
Dr. Girardeau quietly left this world and entered into the presence of His Lord, June 23, 1898. He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery, Columbia, South Carolina, near the resting place of Dr. James Henley Thornwell. These words are inscribed upon his tombstone:
“After he had patiently endured, he obtained rest” (Hebrews 6:15).
Chaplain Girardeau’s Answer to Despair
Following the war, John Lafayette Girardeau, chaplain of the 23rd Regiment, South Carolina Volunteers, returned to his home state of South Carolina to find Christians in deep distress. Followers of the Lamb had cried out to the Lord for victory, believing that Dixie’s Cause was right and its war of defense warranted by God’s Word. A cruel and gloating enemy crushed the Southland. Despair manifested itself in reluctance to pray. Girardeau met this crisis by turning to the Word of God and proclaiming the truth about the ways of God and the continuing blessedness of prayer. Late in 1865, in Charleston, SC, he preached a series of five messages on the subject of prayer. He said:
Daily prayer was offered by crowds of worshippers for the success of the Confederate struggle. In consequence of its disastrous result, many of God’s people were, by Satanic influence, tempted to slack their confidence in prayer. These sermons were an humble attempt to help them under this trial [Life Work and Sermons of John L. Girardeau, p. 254].
His first sermon, “The Nature of Prayer,” is as appropriate today as it was in 1865. As we see our country in distress and witness grievous attacks upon our Christian and Southern heritage, our hearts are encouraged by the example of our Confederate ancestors. Girardeau, highly respected theologian and pastor, urged the Lord’s flock to pray. Turning to Luke 18:1, “Men ought always to pray, and not to faint,” the veteran chaplain said:
In these words our Savior inculcates the habitual and unremitting discharge of the duty of prayer. He obviously contemplates it as of importance so indispensable as that it admits of no suspension or serious interruption of its discharge [p. 254].
True to the martial spirit of the South, he confronted a weakening church with its duty. He explained foundational, biblical truths about prayer. The Bible teaches what is acceptable and unacceptable for prayer. The chaplain said:
It is always lawful to ask those blessings for which the Scriptures authorize us to pray, always wrong to seek those things which they forbid us to desire, or the supplications … which are prompted by motives which they will not justify [p. 259].
He explained another essential truth about acceptable prayer — the absolute sovereignty of God. Deuteronomy 29:29 teaches: “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” The Lord has not revealed all of His purposes. As believers in Christ, we submit to His will. The Apostle Paul prayed three times for the removal of a “thorn in the flesh.” His thorn was not removed, but the Lord Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” It was right for Paul to pray concerning his affliction, but the Lord had a secret purpose in allowing him to continue in his affliction. We know that the Judge of all the earth will do right (Gen. 18:25). “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18). He knows the beginning, the end, and everything in between. For His own glory and for the good of His people, all of His purposes are infallibly accomplished. It is an immense comfort to rest in the truth revealed in Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.”
But there are numerous cases in which this secret will of God is not distinctly made known to us. He reserves to Himself that prerogative of sovereignty, the glory of which it sometimes is to conceal a thing. He is not under obligation to give account of His matters unto any. As the Ruler of the universe, and the supreme Arbiter of events, He disposes of all things in accordance with His own secret purposes. Now, we are bound to submit to the decisions of God’s will, whether they are revealed or not [p. 260].
The believer comes humbly to the throne of grace, and prays, “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth, as it is in heaven.” The defeat of Dixie still grieves us, but we believe in the sovereign God and submit to His will. Our Cause continues and the war is not over. Our duty is to defend the truth for which our ancestors so bravely fought. Chaplain Girardeau gives us this encouragement:
Hold, Christian brother! Do not despair because your prayers for certain blessings, however apparently great, have for a time been unanswered. Where is your faith? Where is your allegiance to your almighty, all-wise, all-merciful Sovereign? Collect yourself. Put on the panoply of God. Stand against these troops of fiends that would dislodge you from the citadel of your faith. Look up. God, your Redeemer and Deliverer, reigns. See, He sits on yonder throne, and suns and systems of light are but the sparkling dust beneath His feet. Thousands of thousands of shining seraphs minister before Him. Infinite empire is in His grasp. The scepter of universal dominion is borne aloft in His almighty hand. His eye is upon His afflicted people. See, see, He comes, He comes, riding upon the wings of the whirlwind, wielding His glittering sword bathed in the radiance of heaven, driving His foes like chaff before His face, and hastening to the succor of His saints with resources of boundless power, and illimitable grace [pp. 264, 265].